Punchy Proteas seek early blow against heavyweight India

For a contest between the runaway first ranked team in the world and the third, the Test series between India and South Africa, which begins in Visakhapatnam on Wednesday, has not received the attention it might have in different circumstances. But that could change very quickly if the tourists achieve their objective in “throwing some early punches,” especially if they do so literally.

Perhaps it’s an Ashes hangover, or the wet weather, or the ongoing domestic T20 tournaments and stories (AB de Villiers is joining the Brisbane Heat for the Big Bash, in case you missed it…) Or perhaps it is simply the perception that South Africa present no real prospect of upsetting an excellent Indian team on home soil.

Four years ago it was a battle between heavyweights. Now it appears to be between a heavyweight and a middle weight, which appears to suit the tourists just fine.

“We have lost the experience of guys like Hashim, AB and Dale but that gives an opportunity for young players to grow as leaders themselves. I love the challenge of leading a new team, it brings the best out of me as a personality,” said captain Faf du Plessis.

There is also the added ‘allure’ of the Test Championship which India lead on 120 points courtesy of a straightforward 2-0 series win against the West Indies. New Zealand and Sri Lanka are second on 60 points after sharing their two-Test series while England and Australia have 56 points apiece after a hard fought 2-2 result in the Ashes. The playing jury has yet to deliver a verdict on the points system!

“It is very exciting for all of us, it’s something fresh and new. I don’t know if it’s a good system or a bad system, it’s just something you have to go through to see how it unfolds,” du Plessis said.

Although there is barely a blade of grass on the pitch for the first Test, the common consensus is that none of the three venues will provide anything like the extravagant spin which dismantled the Proteas batsmen during the 2015 series. Only Dean Elgar and the captain remain in the top six from that tour.

“You can either disappear, or you can come back stronger as a player after a series like that. I benefitted from that tour, and my record against the spinning ball in white and red ball cricket has been better since then so, once again, I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Although Imran Tahir was universally respected as a limited overs bowler by India’s batsmen during that series, they made no secret of their enjoyment in facing him in Test cricket because of the scoring opportunities he provided. This time there is obvious respect for Keshav Maharaj’s Test record and there has been no lack of video analysis into how Dane Piedtmanaged to take 54 first-class wickets last season on South African pitches.

Both spinners are likely to play which means Quinton de Kock and Vernon Philander batting at six and seven.

“That’s definitely one of the options – India is one place where big first innings scores are possible before it becomes more challenging to bat in the second innings. We are definitely considering five bowling options to maximise our chances of taking 20 wickets,” du Plessis said.

“Maharaj is as good as any spinner in the world so if the ball is spinning he will be just as dangerous to the Indian batsmen as their spinners will be to us.”

The Durbanite left armer welcomes the expectation – but with a healthy dose of phlegmatic realism.

“You are expected to be a strike bowler and take wickets as the match goes on in this part of the world and that’s quite right,” Maharaj said, “but I’m not putting myself under too much pressure. I’m just going to keep it simple and try to do my job well, but that doesn’t guarantee you wickets – it depends what’s written in your stars,” Maharaj said

“The Indian players are the best in the world at their trade, but that’s exciting – not everybody gets the chance to test themselves against the best. There are some very big names in their line-up but, sometimes, being the underdog can work in your favour. I’m just quietly confident that we can shock a few people by the end of the tour.”

Philander said two days ago that South Africa need to make a fast start: “We are a team known for starting slowly but we need to throw the first punch in this series,” he said before being endorsed by Maharaj – “we definitely need to land a couple of early blows.” If a touring team falls behind early in India, it can be extremely difficult to catch up. All the players know that – on both sides.

Punches and blows aside, cricket needs an engaging and hopefully compelling series to remind global audiences that this is the best format of all.

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